Philly Tree Plan—A First Pass


On February 23, 2023, Philadelphia’s Department of Parks & Recreation released the Philly Tree Plan.

Philadelphia’s trees help clean the air, slow stormwater runoff, soak up carbon dioxide and cool a city suffering from rising temperatures. With these and other benefits of trees in mind, in 2008 Mayor Nutter set a goal of making sure that every neighborhood in the city had at least 30% tree canopy. (The average at that time was about 23%.)

The result? The City’s 2018 Tree Canopy Assessment found that the city had gained about 1,980 acres of trees. Unfortunately the city had also lost 3,075 acres, for a net loss of 1,095 acres, or about 6%. The City’s tree protections and tree planting efforts have been no match for the destruction of trees that comes from development, both on private and on public land.

City Council made an attempt to tighten tree protections in a bill passed in June, though it too contained large loopholes, for example exempting council president Darrell Clarke’s 5th council district from the bill’s regulatory changes.

The new tree plan attempts to increase the tree canopy both by tightening tree protections and getting more trees in the ground. The proposed improvements to tree regulations include protecting trees on small, residential lots that are currently not covered and where much of the recent tree canopy loss has taken place. The plan calls for a new City forester position, which would improve a planning and construction oversight system currently staffed by City workers with no particular expertise in trees. The plan also puts a strong emphasis on supporting and engaging communities in local tree planting and care, especially in the neighborhoods where tree cover is scant, disproportionately inhabited by people of color.

While the plan goes into depth on some topics, like how to better coordinate City offices that deal with trees, it is sketchy on some of the most difficult challenges, repeatedly saying that “strategies must be identified for new tree planting” for densely built row house neighborhoods where tree shade is so desperately needed. The plan would also not change the City’s legal approach to protecting trees, which is to set requirements and standards for replacing trees cut down in development rather than actually keeping trees from being cut down.

Of course even the best plan is just words and graphics until it is implemented, and it remains to be seen how much of the ambitious agenda will become a reality. The plan calls for several regulatory changes as well as the staffing of 67 new positions in a Parks & Recreation department that has seen its budget shrink dramatically in recent decades. Fundamentally it depends on the political will of leaders who have been loath to let environmental priorities get in the way of new development.

Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage from Grid on the new Philly Tree Plan.

Photo courtesy of Nick Page via Unsplash.

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